New Hampshire

Fitz John Porter Unfairly Blamed for Losing the Battle of Bull Run

Tucked away in Haven Park in Portsmouth, N.H. there is an impressive equestrian statue of Fitz John Porter in his Union Army uniform atop his horse as he would have appeared in battle. Nothing unusual about the statue, except it's rare to create a monument to a man who was court martialed, stripped of command and cashiered from the army in disgrace.

Fitz John Porter

Fitz John Porter (Library of Congress)

The story of Fitz John Porter's military career has less to do with battlefield glory and far more with his battle for redemption.

Porter was born into a military family. His cousin was Naval Admiral David Farragut, who coined the phrase 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.' His father commanded the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Fitz John Porter, however, chose to enter the Army. Trained at West Point, he served in the Western territories until the Civil War broke out/ Then at age 40 he received a promotion to major general in charge of the Union Army's 5th Army Corps.

In 1862 with a newly minted command, Porter allied himself with Gen. George McClellan. McClellan would rise to the rank of commanding general of the United States Army, the same position held by George Washington during the American Revolution. Later in the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant would rise to that role, with more success than McClellan.

But in 1862, the Union Army was run by men of strong personality, but limited experience -- including Gen. John Pope, a favorite of President Lincoln. Many of Pope's critics -- including Fitz John Porter -- considered Pope arrogant and stupid.

Fitz John Porter at Bull Run

fitz john porter seated

Fitz John Porter (seated in chair)(Library of Congress)

At the second Battle of Bull Run, Pope's army was routed in Manassas, Va.just outside of Washington, D.C. History has long concluded that Pope was over-matched in the battle. He was unaware of his enemy's position and misinterpreted their actions and intentions throughout the fighting. But what he lacked in intelligence, he more than made up for in bluster and bravado.

Pope blamed Porter for the defeat. Had Porter responded in a timely manner to his orders, the battle would have gone differently. And Pope characterized Porter's actions as insubordinate and cowardly.

In January, 1863, a court martial panel convicted Porter of disobeying an order and misbehavior in the face of an enemy (essentially cowardice). He was stripped of his command and cashiered, as humiliating a way to end a military career as there is.

Pope soon would drift downward in the ranks of the military as other generals rose up to prominence and the Civil War proceeded.

Porter, meanwhile, returned abruptly to civilian life. But he and his many friends refused to let the decision against him stand. A seesaw battle to clear his name then followed.

Porter personally mapped the entire Manassas battlefield to illustrate his case. President Rutherford Hayes appointed the Schofield Commission to review the court martial of Fitz John Porter.

Exoneration at Last

In 1879 the Schofield Commission found that Pope had issued contradictory orders in the heat of battle. Unable to carry out two conflicting orders at the same time, Porter had sought clarity. And he didn't delay because of cowardice, but rather because he, Porter, had a clearer understanding of the enemy's position than Pope.

Rather than insubordination, the commission declared that Porter's actions had actually minimized the Union Army loss at Bull Run. It placed responsibility for the loss squarely on Pope.

Even Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet contributed to Porter's defense. Yet Hayes lacked the political support to pardon Porter. Hayes was succeeded by James Garfield as president. Garfield had served on the panel of judges that convicted Porter of wrongdoing. But when Garfield was assassinated and Chester Arthur assumed the presidency, Porter finally had an ally.

In 1882 Arthur commuted Porter's sentence, which restored his rights to citizenship and his right to hold office. And finally, in 1886, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill passed by Congress that restored 64-year-old Fitz John Porter to the position of colonel in the U.S. Army. Two days later, Porter resigned his position with the army, vindicated at last.

Porter died in 1901 after an active civilian career in mining and construction and serving terms as New York police commissioner, fire commissioner and public works commissioner. In 1906, the statue to his memory was dedicated in Portsmouth, paid for by his longtime friend R.H. Hadley.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like Maine’s Elijah Lovejoy: The First Casualty of the Civil War. This story was updated in 2019.

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